I’m not a music critic. I trained and worked as a scientist, and from my late 20s on taught university-entry Biology, Geography, Physics, Chemistry, English and English Literature – because Hermiones exist in the real world. Since our tree change hitting 40, I write in public spaces and run a small organic farm on the South Coast of Western Australia, together with my husband Brett, who formally trained in graphic design and IT and has been volunteering on Australian bushfire fighting crews for 30 years. So hello, everyone reading – I thought it was high time that someone who isn’t involved in the music industry, or in music criticism, wrote about music, to set a few things straight and to reclaim it on behalf of the broader audience.
Because my giddy aunt, have I read some bonkum spouted by music critics. Do some of them even listen to the material they review – properly, with decent headphones on, in the dark – or turned up on good speakers with the bass reverberating in your thorax and shaking the building? While not doing a sudoku on the side, or measuring out your bathroom renovation, or doing your income tax return, or picking your nose with such preternatural focus that there is little attention left for the music? And do they make a point of researching and thinking carefully before they reach their conclusions? Do they know how to use modifiers in their sentences to make some of their assertions less black-and-white?
OK, now that I’ve got that off my chest: A while back, I sat down to read the essay The Cure’s Permanent Twilight by music critic Anwen Crawford, and something just didn’t sit right with me about it. Before I elaborate, I’d like to acknowledge this piece is a world away from the worst examples of the genre I was thinking of when I wrote the previous paragraphs: I’ve seen a lot of those, and they’re not worth responding to. It’s a generally good piece. Her essay is in part a well-written and brutally honest personal account of her journey with a particular band she has liked for a long time, and I applaud her for her candour. It’s also a contextualised history of a band. But, I do think it tends to caricature the band and the audience, goes for rather narrow interpretations of artistic works, and makes points not always well substantiated by evidence; and when I read it, I came away feeling slightly ill, as if I’d eaten something a bit off. In part, I think it was the bleakness of her piece: I’ve had similar reactions to other bleak texts, most memorably Sartre’s Nausea, from which I expected much on my tour of philosophical texts, only to be gravely disappointed (but I can highly recommend The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook online, it delivers in spades).
This essay is not meant as a systematic rebuttal of the points I take issue with in Anwen Crawford’s piece, although some will be raised. My primary purpose is to show a complementary perspective – to paint another picture of the place of music in the lives of real people. The audience perspective is not often represented – music essays, CD reviews, even concert reviews in official places tend to be done by industry professionals. I’m here to represent the general public, for whom music is a part of life, but not its main vocation. Of course, I’m only going to write about two little frogs amongst gazillions, because that’s who we are. Other frogs reading will have to come forth and make their own calls, and please do, as this will give us an increasingly more representative sample.
This is a personal snapshot of music in the lives of yours truly and her magnificent wedded husband – two quasi-hippies living on a smallholding within cooee of the Southern Ocean, growing our own food and consciously making time for the things that really matter in life while we are still breathing. We freely admit we live under a rock, and that we enjoy it. So, this is what it looks like, from beneath our rock, which is located in the real world.
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When I was 16 years old, I got turfed out of an English class to find my manners because I couldn’t stop laughing at Why Can’t I Be You, which another student called Pauline, with a spiky tower of raven hair and a ton of inky eyeliner (soooo unoriginal), played as part of our class music project. “Musical taste is subjective,” my teacher (huge Pink Floyd / Leonard Cohen / Lou Reed fan, fair enough, and much enamoured of Freud and psychoanalysis) said to me on the verandah. “There is no right and wrong in it. Show some respect for other people’s choices.” He had a point. The main reason I was laughing, though, is because I was experiencing extreme cognitive dissonance at the question. I thought in straight lines back then, and was ultra-pedantic. From that perspective, the question was completely absurd, and I wondered an adult should be asking it. Then I looked at the adult who was asking it, and found him reminiscent of a Playschool presenter. I rolled my eyes, and decided The Cure were imbeciles. I had a tough home life and was looking for decent role models – there was enough insanity and adults behaving badly in my life already. (My husband the music encyclopaedia sometimes says to me, “Robert Smith is the Dark Wiggle, you know! And The Beatles were the original Wiggles!”)
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We made a deal at our place: When we’re both home, I won’t play Inuit throat singing or Monsieur Camembert if Brett doesn’t play Tool or Radiohead. Other than that, we enjoy the expansion of each other’s cultural horizons courtesy of our ongoing exchanges. The Cure came to my serious attention mostly courtesy of my husband, as did the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Audreys, for example – and not until my 40s. In return, Brett got a number of things he’d never heard of from me, like Capercaillie, Alasdair Fraser, Mary Jane Lamond, Liam Ó Maoinlaí and The Waterboys. Let It Happen is now a serious anthem for both of us.
As a student I’d had little money to acquire CDs, so I was glued to Especially For Headphones, and other good alternative radio programmes. I stopped listening to the radio in disgust when grunge became a thing in the 1990s, and leapt sideways instead into classical and folk until my mid-30s. Then I met Brett, who never went away from all sorts of music, and was very keen to fill me in on what I had missed, with the aid of a huge and eclectic CD collection and an enormous iTunes library, including a whole swag of interesting podcasts with which my brain was kept fed and thinking.
He’d been collecting for 20 years, all sorts of genres – alternative and indie, jazz, classical, trip hop, movie soundtracks, European ambient techno, doom jazz, swamp blues etc etc, and had been aided by having employment which allowed him to listen to his own choice of music at work. He had many of the things I’d missed out on as a teenager, many things I’d forgotten about in the traffic jam of life, and many things which I’d never even heard of but were excellent.
He also had The Cure’s Lullaby, which completely mesmerised me as a university student and still does nearly 30 years later. I love the way the instruments come together at the start of the song, the almost Japanese quality to the main melody, the space in the music, the breathiness of the words, the evocation of a child’s nightmare, the black humour, the sheer theatre of this song. It’s a track that doesn’t get boring for me with repeated listening; in fact it’s the opposite – you just go deeper and deeper into this whole universe in a raindrop. And here it was as part of the extensive dowry of wonderful music and literature my husband brought into my life.
After our tree change, Brett encouraged me to use his iPod when doing outdoors work. I fondly dubbed it Brett FM, because he’s a far better DJ than anyone on the radio in Western Australia. There were playlists to sample he’d made up for me, or I could just play everything on random shuffle, or leaf through the artists and albums. And there was one album on the iPod called Bloodflowers, which ended up being the first Cure album I ever listened to, because it was the first one that simply popped up in my life, just like that. I knew and loved the earlier songs Lullaby and In-Between Days, of course, and was familiar with some other stuff of theirs that the local radio stations are fond of playing to death, especially on Fridays – but that’s not actually their best work, in my opinion; as is the case for many alternative artists who just get the radio-friendly stuff played to the wider public.
So you can hear a lot of limericks, and not be aware of the sonnets and the odes and the free verse the same people made, which can affect the core of you as a human being in a way limericks never will, even the most fun ones. I knew from Lullaby that this band wasn’t necessarily a bunch of himbos, but when I listened to Bloodflowers my jaw hit the ground, and didn’t come back up again for the 64-plus minutes it spans, and then I simply went back to the first track and started again. And I’d not done that with any contemporary music album since the iPod age began. An album without fillers, where each song is worth really listening to, and which speaks deeply to your human experience, is actually quite a rarity, when you look at it statistically – at the tiny proportion of all albums released which fall into that category.
At the end of the day, Brett was asking, “So what was it today?” I replied, “Bloodflowers. It’s incredible!“ And Mr Husband-AKA-Personal Cultural Curator said matter-of-factly, “Oh yes, it is! It’s a wonderful album. And have you heard the track called Burn?” I hadn’t. More treats. Very cool to be discovering a wonderful band in midlife, and to go back through their long catalogue.
I was the right age for Bloodflowers – in my early 40s, and Robert Smith had written these songs on the verge of 40, about 14 years earlier. I’d never heard even one song off this before, so it was completely out of the blue for me. 40 is a sort of watershed for many people; statistically you’re halfway through life, and you’re taking stock to see if you’re wasting your time, if you’re the kind of person you aspired to be, if you’re happy with your direction and your ideals and the circle of people around you, if your energy and creativity could be more usefully employed, if you’re being hypocritical anywhere… and you dig out poems like Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night and WB Yeats’ Love and Death and When You Are Old for another look, and you re-read Neil Gaiman’s Death: The High Cost Of Living. Well, that’s what I did anyway.
Bloodflowers deals extensively with mortality, with the human experience, with being a little transient ant in a big and ancient universe – and yet the little ant has sweeping ideas and feelings, much bigger than its little body and far beyond its little life. Robert Smith is portrayed by some people as a gloom and doom merchant. Apparently it’s morbid to think seriously about life and death…
To summarize briefly: A white rabbit is pulled out of a top hat. Because it is an extremely large rabbit, the trick takes many billions of years. All mortals are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink.― Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
“Ladies and gentlemen,” they yell, “we are floating in space!” But none of the people down there care. “What a bunch of troublemakers!” they say. And they keep on chatting: Would you pass the butter, please? How much have our stocks risen today? What is the price of tomatoes? Have you heard that Princess Di is expecting again?
To me, a sense of wonder goes hand in hand with a sense of mortality. I personally have to have both, and one feeds the other actually. It’s like two sides to the same coin, like day and night define one another. Both deserve serious contemplation. I think to ignore mortality is about a lack of courage, and a lack of maturity – it’s the ostrich with the head in the sand. How clear is your vision like that?
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Musically, what I chiefly enjoy about The Cure is their ability to create really evocative soundscapes. There’s space in their music, and they don’t tend to overcrowd their songs. I enjoy the way they use their instruments to create intricate textures and patterns, and the frequently striking tonal beauty of the guitars, reminiscent of the way people play cellos and violas. In some ways The Cure remind me of our Australian Chamber Orchestra (although of course Richard Tognetti doesn’t get nearly as much rubbish made up about him). I’ve seen the ACO in concert, doing, amongst other things, the string suite for the movie Psycho – and the audience was half cracking up in anticipation long before the outrageous slashing of the E-strings. When we all got to that part, in the brief pause before the slashing starts, even the ACO was cracking up – but proceeded to play that infamous cacophony with panache. When watching string quartets or chamber orchestras, I’m always fascinated by the interplay between the musicians, by how people cue one another and synchronise. I love that sense of teamwork and cooperation, and the smiles you can see when something has come off particularly well, or when something amusing happened. Watching Trilogy recently had exactly the same effect on me.
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After I’d had a few years to absorb Bloodflowers and some live albums, Brett came home one day with Disintegration. (Have I mentioned yet how useful he is?) I’d just acquired a freak triple metatarsal fracture and was on a pirate leg trying to run a smallholding. My husband said to me, “This song collection should be topical!” and we laughed at the universe. Foot fractures are really painful, and I’d never broken a bone before, so to make up for it, here were three all at once. Don’t ask me how I did it, because it was so banal, but I knew it had happened a fraction before the pain hit, because of the gunshot sound. Brett was teasing me, “Now you’re a real Cure fan, you’ve prepared for this experience!”
Plainsong became the real surprise off this one for me. Lush, beautiful, majestic, and viscerally affecting every time I hear it – my hair always stands on end. This song to me is the fraternal twin of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s completely breathtaking classical piece Tabula rasa (I’ve got Gil Shaham’s version). Both tracks just go to the core of me, and remind me what an amazing thing it is to be alive. Tabula rasa to me is the musical incarnation of standing barefoot in the middle of a massive, massive thunderstorm in some amazing desert landscape, and just looking at the jagged light and feeling the sound in your bones and the raindrops on your skin and your hair standing on end with the sheer unbridled electricity of everything. These two compositions can both bring me to tears of joy that I am breathing and conscious and part of this universe. They cut to something deep and essential, push you out onto the very tips of the hair of the giant rabbit from Sophie’s World so you can bathe in the starlight and be face-to-face with endlessness, and feel your magical flight through space and time.
Brett loves Tabula rasa too, but describes it as “raw nihilistic existential terror.” (Whatever floats your boat, my prrreciousss.) Yet my friend Sharon from Sydney couldn’t stand this, she said it was completely depressing and unbearable! It all depends on how your brain is wired. I used to go out in the middle of the night as a teenager, if a thunderstorm was brewing, and just take it in, and watch the real fireworks, and let the rain fall on my skin, and feel connected and alive and safe. It was this conscious being a part of nature, immersing yourself in it. The first time I ever walked the larger-than-life granite shores of the South Coast where I live, I was 22 years old, fresh out of university, and had never been to a place like it before. I went out to The Gap (before all that shiny touristy stuff was installed on it), where the shoreline is paved with gargantuan blocks of granite on cliffs towering vertiginously over the sea, and huge waves roar in straight from Antarctica. I felt like I was in Gulliver’s Travels, I was just this tiny, tiny ant in this soaring landscape. It puts you in proper perspective, and I actually find that really comforting. (And in case you’re wondering, the song that came to my head as I was out on those cliffs was The Waterboys’ Don’t Bang The Drum – it’s a perfect fit.)
And yet, not everyone sees it this way. The way we emotionally respond to landscapes, and to music, varies from person to person. In literature, there is a useful concept called intertextuality – that meaning is made by the interaction between a text and a reader / listener / viewer. It’s not just something produced by the original meaning and intentions of the author. You’re potentially going to bring everything you are, everything you’ve been, everything you’ve read and experienced to any new text. The text does not exist in a vacuum. It’s sort of like the observer effect in physics. But, what this doesn’t mean is that any interpretation is fair go and of equal value.
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Which brings me back to what grates on me in music criticism. In a nutshell, it’s the habit some music critics seem to have of imposing narrow interpretations on the meanings of songs, and of making caricatures out of musicians (and audiences). I think this is a more widespread problem in music criticism than in literary criticism, as I don’t often enjoy the former, while I generally enjoy the latter. Most reviews of novels I’ve read don’t have me shaking my head incredulously, but if I go looking up album reviews, it tends to dampen my day. Last year, I spent many months deliberately not looking at music criticism for much the same reason that I don’t generally watch TV news. I’m fed up with prefabricated distortions of reality, and would rather observe reality directly. TV news is not a statistically accurate reflection of what happens in this world, it’s a distortion of a narrow, generally sensationalised selection of events. Likewise, many album reviews or music essays I’ve read are narrow and distorted (and even demonstrably inaccurate), and so don’t reflect reality very well.
I had some quibbles too with The Cure’s Permanent Twilight. Let’s take an example point from the essay:
Whenever you listen to (The Cure), you enter this place, where everything, including time, is unchanging.
Is that a fact? Not to me, it’s not. I see a lot of diversity in the music this band has produced over 40 years – The Cure isn’t Enya (which is not to imply that Enya’s music is somehow worthless, either). I do see evidence of personal growth, and of evolving thought, and of people applying what they are learning – I do not see a general stagnation, or a musical Groundhog Day. I occasionally raise my eyebrows at overgeneralisations made by their singer, but you can see that pretty much with everyone at times. What I can agree with here is that music, or anything else – like the farmhouse that my husband and I dreamed up and spent five years building with our own hands (missing a Cure concert in the process, grrr) – can end up with a sense of timelessness if it’s authentically and carefully made, without heed to the fashions of the time.
More problematic :
The group’s three original members – drummer Lol Tolhurst, bassist Michael Dempsey and Smith – all attended Catholic school. Remnant Catholicism runs rampant through The Cure’s songs… Smith favours words like “stain” and “clean”, suggesting a worldview informed by the notion of ineradicable guilt and hell to pay for it.
Catholicism has also shaped the role that sex plays in their songs, or rather doesn’t play, because, truly, The Cure are one of the coyest bands ever. Coyness is, of course, a part of their self-renewing appeal to generations of young teenagers: the songs cut away just when things threaten to get real. As you age, it can irritate. There’s something unedifying about a grown man sublimating desire in endless metaphors of commingling waters…
I’ll deal with the first paragraph first. …that’s one heck of a longbow to draw. You might as well conclude someone who has the word voodoo in their vocabulary is therefore personally connected with African spirituality, or that a person who named their cat Ophelia has necessarily read Hamlet.
Stain and clean has biblical, rather than specifically Catholic, connotations, and biblical imagery is quite ubiquitous in classic English literature, as it was a text people were once broadly culturally familiar with – so the language has been passed down quite broadly as well, as has Shakespeare’s, for example. It’s actually part of the general culture. Stain and clean is Lady Macbeth’s obsession, but it is also language used by modern drycleaners, laundry detergent manufacturers, etc without intended subtext. People who do use those words metaphorically or with subtext don’t necessarily use it to convey Catholic ideas of guilt and hell.
And as to what you can conclude from someone having attended Catholic school: Yes, we are all influenced by our environments – but we also all have personal filters. I’m not Catholic, but because good science educators are hard to find, I have spent a significant proportion of my professional career teaching in Catholic schools. There were a few things I was supposed to be careful talking about as a result, and we weren’t able to show students actual physical examples of contraceptives – in secular Australian schools, for the Year 10 human reproduction topic, the carrots-and-condoms practical is traditional (carrots are cheaper than cucumbers, and more resilient and reusable), with students working in pairs to practice correct application techniques. This is a good icebreaker for young people to get over embarrassment and “icky” – plus it’s so much better to have practice runs in a rational frame of mind and with good lighting and expertise present. As an added bonus, once proficiency has been achieved, you can all have a balloon party.
So when I had to explain to some of my 15-year-olds why their friends in secular school were getting carrots and condoms, but they were not (poor dears), I took the opportunity to conduct a small class survey: Just out of curiosity, can you put your hand up if you are a practising Catholic. On average, less than a quarter raised their hands. OK, so some may have been embarrassed to, which skews the count. The tandem question, Can you put your hand up if you think religion is bonkum, drew a far more enthusiastic response. A significant proportion of students wasn’t even culturally Catholic. So, even in the same environment, different individuals will apply different filters.
In summary, it would be quite defensible to infer that Robert Smith and his fellow ex-Catholic school bandmates-to-be did not get the benefit of an official carrots-and-condoms practical as part of their science education as teenagers – but it would be far-fetched to infer that references to stained and clean in Cure lyrics point to world views informed by religious hangups, or to insinuate that these hypothetical hangups somehow clipped the wings of people’s sexuality.
I also took issue with the author saying The Cure were “coy” and that it was unedifying that a grown adult should express themselves in metaphors and flowery language when referring to sex. (Eat that, Shakespeare!)
As a general starting comment, I think one of the topics that gets the most awful and clumsy writing in the general public sphere is that of sex – unless you’re reading a clinical textbook, which is just clinical, and to the point, and inoffensive. There actually is an annual “worst sex scene in literature” award because of this. A lot of people’s attempts are so cringeworthy – like the Mills & Boon (AKA Bilge & Swoon) stuff, which is full of horrendous clichés about the hero’s thrusting manhood etc etc (a redheaded, bookish classmate called Vanessa used to read these on her lap in our Year 10 Maths class and periodically go pale and shove the book on my lap with a significant look) – I can’t understand why it is so popular. The Song of Solomon has Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love… thy hair is like a flock of goats that appear from Mount Gilead… thine eyes are like the fishpools of Heshbon… (Sorry, loverboy, I’m washing my hair, even if thy member is verily like unto the gargantuan serpent that creepeth mightily in Eden, and wreaketh mighty works… yawn.) The majority of written erotica I’ve seen, I’d also classify as bilge, just with more X-rated language. I don’t know how anyone finds that exciting, but clearly, a lot of people do. Ho hum.
Lack of directness, when well executed, can actually be really effective, because it encourages people to use their imagination, rather than just spoon-feeding them. Ask a hundred women to juxtapose the pottery scene in Ghost, or Colin Firth’s Darcy in that bathtub scene, with deliberately sexually explicit material – and which do most of them still remember? Yet nobody was compromised.
Here’s another related concept. It’s one I have to deal with as well, since I write in public spaces, and not infrequently about quite personal things. When I write, I have to decide where I draw the line between being a generally open human being, and preserving some personal privacy. To contextualise: I grew up in a family where violence, verbal abuse, scapegoating and lack of emotional nurturing were daily realities from the time I was an infant, which meant my brain developed with the equivalent of war zone trauma from the beginning, and it was coming from the primary caregivers – there was no safe bubble in the home. School was the next best thing, and I had the extraordinary good fortune to have a fabulous Year 1/2 teacher, who was warm, caring, encouraging, and thought I had a right to take up space. I began, finally, at the age of six, to thrive, and to smile, and to believe I had things to offer, and to see that there were safe people in this world too. I loved language, nature, art, music, books – and our teacher gave us lots of opportunities to get wonderful experiences in these areas. She played many different musical instruments – accordion, guitar, recorder, harmonica, percussion, xylophone, etc – and taught us to sing harmonies, and she had amazing art and craft projects for us to do, as well as being highly competent, and very organised, at teaching literacy and mathematics. I still love this person, whom I’ve not seen since I was ten.
I am similarly indebted to a number of other excellent teachers and all-round human beings who came my way, as well as to writers, and visual artists, and poets, and musicians, whose work I could basically snuggle up to and be warmed by, and have as my safe space. From an early age, I was therefore frequently lost in books and in art that showed me universes I might want to live in, and later on, I began to read and be comforted by poetry that had the exact words for my unexpressed and hitherto little discovered feelings. As a teenager, when still living on an isolated farm with my birth family, I spent the majority of my time either outdoors, or seriously engaged in schoolwork which I knew would be my ticket to independence, or writing conversationally in my journal to straighten out my head, or sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor with my headphones on, learning that the best music was basically poetry with extra dimensions, and that music was a language which went beyond what mere words could express (useful as words can be). Meanwhile, my parents would enter without knocking to enquire whether their (unappreciated straight-A student) daughter was developing a drug habit, what other reason could there possibly be for her to sit alone in her room on the floor in the dark?
So, when writing about personal things, where do we draw the line? When I started writing about mental health a few years ago, I decided to be completely open about the topic, and my background, and I’ve never regretted that, because I’ve seen that it’s in telling our own stories, and engaging with the stories of others, that we expose to healing daylight the things that have been festering in the darkness for too long, both as individuals and as a community. There was a time, though, when I would have been petrified to do it – as is the common experience for people recovering from complex PTSD.
Mental health is one topic, personal sexuality is another, and this particular one to me comes with good reasons not to be completely transparent and in people’s faces about: Not because of lack of sexual or emotional maturity, not because embarrassed, not because laden with religious and/or psychological hang-ups, although of course, all of those are examples of things that can result in either silence or in the usual bilge on the topic.
So try this one on for size, as a good reason to draw a line: Because for some people at least, the sexual and emotional intimacy they have with their life partner is and remains special, and is a personal world where only the two of you go that’s essentially off limits to others. We’ve been married eleven years, and that’s been our experience. You’re never going to tell all, or even the half of it – it’s your own personal space. We laugh at the popular idea that monogamy equals boring. Oh yeah, it’s such a cross to bear! Such an imposition, to be foregoing neverending flings with various interchangeable bodies, merely to do several PhDs on your favourite person in the whole universe, your best friend, the person whose every age is still inside of them like the annual rings inside of trees, and reaching every corresponding age inside of you, and who has shared your road and been your partner in so many adventures – and also in significant heartbreak, because life is life.
Often, what a person says about other people or their work tells you more about the author than about their subject – the saying is that when you point your finger, three fingers point back at you – and that goes for all of us. In the case of The Cure’s Permanent Twilight, which had me disagreeing on various of the author’s points, there was another really obvious problem with their idea that Cure songs are always sexually coy. It’s kind of related to the author’s claim that you really didn’t need to listen to their last four studio albums, with the possible exception of Bloodflowers. Did they actually listen closely themselves, before making that wholesale recommendation that implies everyone’s going to feel the same way?
Two example songs with sexual content from those albums, to illustrate. Jupiter Crash is what I imagine a grown-up Callisto could have written – the young protagonist from Borrowed Light, Anna Fienberg’s epic 1999 young adult novel on astronomy, relationship dysfunction, romantic love and sex. Celestial metaphors abound in this book, and Callisto would have been right at home in this song.
The words to this would have got its author an A+ from me had they been in my English class – it’s an astute piece about a disappointing sexual encounter, and more broadly raises the problems with having excessively high expectations of things like astronomical events and sex, and then getting disappointed, and actually missing things in the process as well. This is so well-written, full of lovely, gentle metaphors which get neither twee nor compromising, and has a wonderful sense of place – you can literally see the starlit sky, the ocean lapping at the shore. It’s not hiding from anything, and it’s exactly the sort of song that’s suitable for hauling into a classroom during relationship / sexuality education sessions, to act as a springboard for discussion – just like Borrowed Light.
The 2008 song The Only One would definitely not be able to used in such a classroom session – it’s too explicit for educational use with high school students. (Never mind what teenagers consume in their own time, it’s to do with your professional code, and duty of care. That sort of stuff properly belongs in their peer discussions, with your adult nose decidedly not on the scene.) The Only One is rather edgy, and to me skirts around the dangerous ground of just how much you’re willing to reveal about your private life, as a writer. In my own personal code of conduct, I would not be able to put something like this in a public space without running it by my partner first, to see how they felt about it. The final decision would be up to them. (Brett laughed, and said, “Imagine putting this song out without clearing it first, and then saying to your partner, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it wasn’t about you!’”) OK, we get it – people have sex (or not) – but would you take photographs and publish them? What about creating imagery in people’s heads? Where you draw that line is a complex question, and a completely individual decision. Because my public was an underage public, I had to be one hundred percent punctilious with drawing that line very conservatively. Students had a right to be comfortable with and completely uncompromised by me. As a writer, my rules are more relaxed. It’s a different audience, and much less in my face as well.
I do think The Only One works as a song, and my hat is completely off for the candour and honesty of a married person on the edge of 50 writing this one, and showing that while there might be snow on the roof, the fire definitely isn’t out, and that sex is not the monopoly of the under-30s. I actually think a bit of myth-busting is in order about this topic, and making the song quite explicit achieves that far more effectively in this case than writing metaphors. Like many of my generation, I was aghast at turning 30, and it’s so utterly ridiculous in retrospect. It’s like our society plays “scary monsters”. Turning 40 was far less angsty, and my 40s have turned out amazing. It really helps to be in a relationship with the sort of person who’s unfazed, and values you for yourself – and to be that sort of person for them, as well. Real love isn’t “I love chocolate” – love is a doing word, an attitude, living well.
I see humans as being like trees with their annual rings – inside of you is every year of your life; if you go deep into the centre, you’ll have your first day at school, and further on, earliest memories like learning to walk, becoming conscious of a self, I’ve even got one of kicking my legs as a baby and this sort of befuddlement trying to work out how to operate them. I remember when I stopped clenching my hands in my sleep; discovering you could open your hands like a flower. That you should walk heel-first and roll, rather than flat-footed. That looking into the sun gave you black spots in your vision. I can go back to every ring and feel what I felt, see what I saw, smell what I smelt, hear what I heard – it’s so amazing that we can store all that. It’s like going into the Pensieve in Harry Potter – travelling back in time and being there and witnessing it. So, I think we still have each year we ever were inside of us, with the little sapling right at the centre. I think we can still access all of these years and be all that is inside of us. Some people perhaps don’t look, or perhaps don’t want to have anything to do with the parts of them close to the core, but I’ve always found that the most mature and integrated people have embraced all the ages they’ve ever been, and live from that totality, without throwing anything away – and that’s a great way to live.
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“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
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Anwen Crawford asked in her essay if any of us ever had Robert Smith featuring in a dream. Here’s mine: I dreamt that I was working on an article in my usual writing uniform – civilised top with bra and everything, pyjama bottoms. It’s a tradition with me and it really gets me in the writing zone. Cotton pyjama pants are so cute and breathable and comfortable to wear that they became my around-the-house bottoms for summer as well. Sadly, my favourites started to wear, forming a threadbare Swiss Cheese pattern near my seatbones. It’s really annoying, and you can’t actually mend them. I’ve tried – stitching is pointless, and ironing on patches makes you feel like you are sitting on pork crackling, plus it rips along the edges of the patch. The latest pair this has been happening to, I have been wearing around the house anyway when not in company – because I am in pyjama demise denial. Also, we live in the middle of nowhere. People rarely come here. We could be a nudist colony and it wouldn’t matter.
So in my dream, I was typing away, when there was a knock at the door. In some surprise, I padded across the house to answer it, and it was Robert Smith and his wife Mary. I blinked – surely I was hallucinating (how meta is that!) – but they didn’t disappear, so I greeted them and asked them would they like a cup of tea. This seemed fine to them, so I stepped back on the threshold to let them in, and then explained that I would be walking backwards facing them along the corridor due to wardrobe malfunction. As I was walking backwards, I was going, “Bre-ett, please put the kettle on, I have to go change my pants!”
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Finally: Hello and welcome to Australia, to The Cure – and Happy Birthdays, good health and all that, and you’re not dead yet, and neither are we. Owing to the size of the Opera House and its distance from our abode across the Nullarbor, we regrettably won’t be in your audience, but best wishes to you, and we’re hoping that we can at least catch the streamed version, and that you’ll have enough time in your short stay over here to at least scratch yourselves a little bit, and get out into our beautiful, ancient, magical, incomparable bit of Gondwana. The Blue Mountains are superb, the Barrenjoey Peninsula has wonderful geology, and Sydney Harbour is a jewel – as far as realistically reachable spots go. So get your walking boots on, and get some oxygen while you’re here. And thanks for making music – because any good art reveals to us our own humanity, and this is an important thing to learn – and because seriously good music is one of the best things in life.
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SPOT THE ASSUMPTION: I’ve added this in as an afterthought. If anyone reading this spots the assumption I made when discussing The Only One, put it in the comments! Feedback for improvement always welcome.
Acknowledgements: Love and hugs to Brett, for unfailing support and technical wizardry, and to Elizabeth, who is a very cool cat, for encouragement and feedback. ♥